Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Israel’s hard sway to the right is nothing new

A group of former Israeli soldiers from a group calling itself Breaking the Silence released testimonies this month from troops who fought in last summer’s Gaza war. The soldiers claimed that the rules of engagement in the conflict had been indiscriminate.

According to the United Nations Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs, about 2,200 Palestinians were killed in Gaza, including almost 1,500 civilians. Entire neighbourhoods were razed, and have yet to be rebuilt.

Hamas’s responsibility for what happened cannot be underestimated. Israel’s bombardment of Gaza followed rocket fire from the strip as tensions rose after the killing of three Israeli youths in June, followed by the retaliatory killing of an Arab teenager. Given Israel’s reactions in the past, Hamas could not have anticipated a less destructive outcome.

The soldiers’ admissions highlighted how Israel is drifting towards an aggressive ethno-nationalism that often seems little different from the bigoted sectarianism raging in the Arab world.

Nothing brought this reality home better than Benjamin Netanyahu’s divisive populism on election day in March, when he rallied his supporters on Facebook. “The right-wing government is in danger. Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves,” he declared. “Left-wing NGOs are bringing them in buses.”

Mr Netanyahu effectively mobilised one portion of Israel’s population against the other, namely its Arab minority. Not surprisingly, the prime minister later apologised, but his sincerity was dubious since his indecent tactic won him the election. The White House spokesman earnestly described Mr Netanyahu’s actions as undermining “democratic ideals”.

But it’s not democracy that Mr Netanyahu has undermined as much as the prospect of settling Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians. To do that he has consolidated Israel’s shift to the political right. His new government is the most hard-line ever, with several ministers advocating annexation of the West Bank.

During the election campaign, Mr Netanyahu made clear that he opposed the establishment of a Palestinian state. Nothing suggests he will change his views. On the contrary, he has repeated that at a time of increasing extremism in the Middle East the creation of such a state would be a terrible idea.

For those on the other side of the regional divide, condemnation of Israel is second nature. But as Israelis look at their own country, what do they see? What future do they envisage? Time and again a majority of Israelis has expressed a desire for peace in opinion polls, yet at election time voters bring in governments whose policies make peace all but impossible.

There is always some idea in the air that induces the majority to accept measures that only exacerbate relations with the Palestinians: that there is no Palestinian partner for peace; that the Middle East is too unsettled for Israel to surrender land; even that the Palestinians are “beasts” and “not human”, to quote Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan, the new deputy defence minister responsible for the military administration of the West Bank.

Palestinians are indeed facing problems of credibility, but Mr Netanyahu has only aggravated them to advance his scheme of retaining occupied territories. The more profound question is what price will Israelis pay by indefinitely controlling, directly or indirectly, the lives of nearly 4 million Palestinians, while treating the 1.6 million Arabs of Israel as citizens to be feared?Such a situation is not tenable for ever.

To ward off difficult decisions the Israelis have tended lately to highlight the interests they share with Arab states in containing Iran. That is an illusion. Past Israeli officials also thought that they could resolve their Palestinian problem through the Arab states. In 1982, Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon ordered the invasion of Lebanon, hoping that by destroying the Palestinian leadership and forcing it out of Beirut they could compel Palestinians in the West Bank and Jerusalem to fulfil their political aspirations by seeking a state in Jordan.

More recently Israelis have been heartened by the hostility between the Sisi administration in Egypt and Hamas in Gaza. Yet parallel Israeli and Arab interests will, at best, earn Israel tactical advantages, while leaving the core issue alone.

Nor is this solely Mr Netanyahu’s doing. Looking back at most Labour governments after the June 1967 war, a similar refusal to give up occupied land was evident. Even a man later hailed as a peacemaker, Moshe Dayan, took a position not so very different from that of Naftali Bennett today, arguing that the West Bank was “part of our land, to be settled, not abandoned”.

The fate of the Palestinians is not high in the region’s concerns today. But like many problems in the Middle East until a few years ago, it is a cataclysm waiting to happen. As Israeli Jews drift towards ethno-national exclusivism, they should consider that this will only reinforce the same attitude in their enemies. And as the Arab world is discovering, mutual denial is suicidal.

No comments: